Walmart (NYSE:WMT) stock returns have tracked the broader market for most of 2019 as investors wait for more clarity on the retailer's growth path. On one hand, the chain is enjoying its fastest sales growth in over a decade. Yet that expansion pace isn't being felt in key international markets, and Walmart's U.S. traffic gains are coming at a steep cost in terms of spending on an expensive home delivery infrastructure.

Those clashing trends set up an important earnings report on Thursday, Nov. 14, that will also include management's forecast for the critical holiday shopping period. Let's take a closer look at what investors will be watching for in that report.

A full grocery cart.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Sales numbers

The biggest story in Walmart's rebound has been head-turning growth in the U.S. market. Last quarter marked the first time in five quarters that comparable-store sales growth slipped below 3%, but the chain still managed healthy customer traffic gains while winning market share from supermarket rivals like Kroger.

Investors are hoping to see more evidence of those gains on Thursday, with this report setting the tone for the peak holiday selling season that's already underway. Meanwhile, the consumer staples giant has blamed softness in international markets like the U.K. and Canada for pressuring growth in recent quarters, so look for an update on that segment from CEO Doug McMillon.  

2. Profit pressures

There are two big investor questions that Walmart will clarify around costs and expenses this week. The first is whether the e-commerce sales channel is still getting more efficient following last quarter's encouraging improvement. Success there will show up in operating income growth that meets or exceeds the sales uptick.

There's no reason to expect Walmart's spending trajectory to slow anytime soon, though. Its shift to a multichannel sales strategy has soaked up billions since 2015, but it still requires tons of resources as delivery times trend toward same-day fulfillment for groceries and other products in an effort to remain competitive with Amazon's e-commerce delivery ambitions. Kroger, Costco, and Target are all racing toward that same goal, and Walmart is clear that it aims to be a leader in that consumer shift. Management should comment about how it sees the move progressing and whether home delivery will hurt profitability past fiscal 2020.

3. Consumer strength

Walmart's massive sales base puts it in an ideal position to judge consumer strength ahead of the critical holiday shopping period. As it stands today, the retailer's outlook calls for sales to rise by about 3% in the U.S. and internationally, marking a healthy acceleration over last year's result.

Global operating profit is projected to rise at about the same pace, while capital expenditures should weigh in at a hefty $11 billion compared to $10 billion last year. Executives will have an opportunity to update each of those outlook targets on Thursday, but it likely won't be until Walmart's holiday quarter report that shareholders will learn whether the chain's big spending initiatives are enough to keep it near the top of the retailing industry.

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